I love road trips. Just a few days before I met my wife, I drove my Ford focus up to Vancouver from Southern California and back as a new way to explore the world and my newfound freedom that a vehicle brought with it.
When COVID hit, my work-from-home job was immediately assaulted by my two children who overnight became stay-at-home students with teachers that didn’t really understand what they needed to do to deliver an education but could see the summer just around the corner.
After a few months at home alone with the kids, my introverted brain was ready to explode and I begged my wife for a break. She smiled knowingly and said, “yeah that’s fine,” so I eagerly made plans to take off on another road trip. This trip in the early days of the COVID pandemic reignited my passion for the road. For seeing new things.
Road trips open up a part of my brain that feels constrained at home. We don’t lead a busy life most of the time, but there’s just something about the daily routines at home that make it feel like a hampster wheel. As if I’m running just to run. Running without a purpose. Without a destination. Without meaning. Just getting through the day to get to the next one. Then back on the treadmill to do it all over again. No challenge. No mystery. No unknown. No adventure. Just one day after another. Fuck that.
I want to be stretched. To try new things. To wake up with a crick in my neck. To take the random left turn leading into the wilderness. To stay a few extra days. Road trips are one of the only times in life where I feel I’m allowed the freedom to truly explore the extent of what my mind wants to do. It blows away all the inhibitions, one at a time. I’m not completely free, but I’m allowed the freedom to blow down a few of the walls surrounding my day to day. I’m going to drive on dirt. To head off the well trod path and get dirty. To get flat tires and scrape against rocks. Life is messy. I don’t want the canned, processed version, thank you very much.
Tesla make road tripping extremely easy. Pick a destination. Drop it into the navigation and the vehicle and Tesla’s charging network work together to map out the plan for driving and charging. If you want to get creative, you can branch out from the default plan to different charging stations, longer charging sessions for meals, shorter charging sessions for quick coffee breaks, bathroom breaks, and the like.
Fast forward to 2022.
I try to get on on a road trip twice a year in the spring and fall when the weather is the nicest to cross the majority of the country. I’ve missed the last few trips for a variety of reasons and I was excited beyond belief to get out of the house in November in my newly converted Tesla Model Y Performance.
I installed a set of drawers in the rear storage area that housed a makeshift kitchen setup, a battery system for energy storage to power all my cooking gadgets, and even a water system. None of it had been tested. I was excited to get out and see what worked and what didn’t in my new build.
The plan was to drive across the southern United States. I haven’t spent much time in these states and was eager to see more of them. To smell the smells, breathe in the fresh air, sample the local fair, and explore supermarkets in new areas. Supermarkets are like windows into the community. They speak to the local culture. Spicy or tame. Fresh or canned. BBQ or dried. It all comes out in the aisles of the local supermarket. Yes please.
My path would lead me straight across the United States from our home in Ventura, California to roughly Savannah, Georgia. I had a few friends along the way that I wanted to break bread with and say hi to. It’s a strange sensation to roll up to a friend’s house on the other side of the country in my own car. The collision of worlds is entertaining and it’s always a great way to spend time together.
With so much buildup for the trip, my brain wouldn’t shut up and on the morning of my trip instead of waking up at 4:00 a.m., my body and brain both decided they wanted to be awake and ready to go at a crisp 12:30 a.m.. Whatever. I know my brain and my body well enough to know that it wasn’t worth fighting and given my flexible schedule over the coming days, I wasn’t worried about having to fit in an extra break or two to fit in a nap, if needed.
I hit the road early and made good time. The sole reason for my early planned departure time was to get through and out of the Los Angeles area before rush hour. I do this for any type of travel, if at all possible. Traffic isn’t the end of all things, but it does seem like an unnecessary waste of time when I could be sitting at home on the couch or doing just about anything else instead.
On these road trips, I break up the long stretches on the road with my favorite music, exploring new styles of music, audiobooks, and even occasional stretches of silence. I was programmed to listen to music in the car so that’s my default but I feel it is important to try different modes and see what our brains and bodies react to.
On this trip, I was listening to Walter Isaacson’s book The Code Breaker about Jennifer Doudna. It is about the imperfect journey to develop the toolkit know today as CRISPR and I was able to finish 99% of it on the trip. Listening to a book or even a consistent theme of music on these trips definitely sets of tone and etches both the topics from the book and the locations I’m visiting into my memory in tandem.
Even now, when I think of CRISPR, my brain thinks of the long stretches of Texas highway I drove through while pondering the implications of gene editing technology. Topics I muddled through amidst heavy downpours, the narrator’s voice talking through the tense patent battles and the timelines of medical journal publications that formed the framework of the CRISPR genetics revolution live together in harmony in my memory.
My first day of driving led me all the way into New Mexico. I had planned to just barely enter the state, but in reality, I ended up pushing almost all the way through the state that first day. I found a dispersed camp site for the night in the frigid mountains just past Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In my vehicle, I had built a set of platforms that laid out across the flat back of my rear passenger seats to form a makeshift platform for a bed. As this was truly the shakedown of the entire camper type system, instead of buying an actual mattress, my plan was to simply borrow the old IKEA roll-up mattress we have for my two boys for when they want to build a fort or have a sleepover. That turned out to be an abysmal mistake, but one I was intent on sticking with for the duration of the trip.
It’s easy to try to spend our way out of problems or to spend our way out of problems. We don’t even know exist and to think too far ahead of reality in an attempt to mitigate unnecessary suffering. In truth, it’s those trips where we try and try and fail where our brains really start to engage and to dream up newer, better solutions.
Being a homegrown system, my car camper represents a variety of things I’ve seen on the internet, in stores, and in brochures all glued together into a single piece of kit that lives in the back of my vehicle. I was eager to round off some of the burs on my system both literally and figuratively with this trip. In addition to the camper build, I had added all terrain tires and upgraded the suspension to give me a couple of extra inches of clearance to accommodate some light off-roading duty.
I hoped to be able to take the vehicle out into the national forests and bureau of land management property that stretches across vast areas of our country. Many of these areas allow free dispersed camping, where adventurers can literally drive out onto a piece of the land and camp for the night. Your mileage may vary depending on the agency that manages the land, what state is it in, how accessible the area is, and much much more. I was eager to explore this loophole in the system with this trip and see what was truly possible on our government-owned lands in the United States.
I didn’t expect it to be as good as some people made it sound, but was sure that it was better than pulling over at random truck stops or tucking in behind a dark hotel to try to catch a few hours of sleep like I’ve done on some of the road trips I’ve done in the past. I had a slew of apps that I hoped would help me crack the code on this and help me build my own system for finding the best sites with better information for future trips.
My first night, I found a camping spot that was maybe a half mile out on a 4×4 path. It ended up being the most aggressive off-road trail I’ve been on to date. While I was not especially eager to take it on at 10:30pm with the weather dipping below freezing, I took it slow and challenged myself. At the end of the short trail, I ended up finding a beautiful campsite where I slept for a few hours before waking up early to make some coffee and warm food to fend off the morning freeze.
Before that night, I had never slept in my new camper setup. I realized very quickly after hitting the road that this was getting very real, very quick. Sleeping in my new mini camper that first night validated my system and eased the majority of my concerns. In truth, there wasn’t too much downside. If the car camper setup was a complete failure, I could always resort to staying at cheap hotels or even stopping by a local hardware store to make the necessary modifications to remedy whatever egregious gaps I found in my setup.
Everything worked out fine that first night and I quickly realized that while the camping was free and I was able to find many, many beautiful dispersed camping sites on public lands, I was doing them and myself a disservice by using them as little more than glorified rest stops along the highway.
I knew the first few days of my trip would be long, without much time to explore and enjoy the camp sites along the way. These first few nights of my trip, I would consistently arrive in the dark and leave just before the sun came up or as it was just rising in the morning.
As such, I would largely miss their natural beauty and the positive impact time spent in nature can have. It’s meditative. It’s therapeutic. It’s calming. Slowing down to the pace of nature allows our mind to run through whatever processes it needs to in order to filter through and clean up our subconscious.
The first night of my trip was in the books and I was back on the road heading east towards the east coast.